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Australia Day or Invasion Day, it's the wrong question

Non-Indigenous Australians need to develop a genuine relationship with the land's original inhabitants.

It's Australia Day and you're several drinks down at a party in eager anticipation to see whether the next song on the Triple J countdown is the one you voted for. Suddenly you overhear that same old argument between two people over whether the day should be called Australia Day or Invasion Day. Not this one again. Frustrations aside, it always makes you feel a little weird. 

Well, it should, if you're Australian.

Invasion Day marchers in 2015.
Invasion Day marchers in 2015. Photo: Jason South

Whether it's Invasion Day or discussions of treaties and Indigenous sovereignty, it makes many of us non-Indigenous Australians feel a little uncomfortable. And here is why. 

As historian Patrick Wolfe argues, Australia, for its legitimacy as a state, has always fundamentally depended on the dispossession of the Indigenous nation – Australia simply cannot exist without this invading process in play. Now, as a member of the Australian state, you owe your very existence to this process of invasion. From the land you grew up on to the dividends of your mining shares, it is all a result of the invasion process. This is not a thesis on white guilt. It is a statement of fact. 

It is for this reason that so many non-Indigenous Australians find it impossible to genuinely and critically discuss Indigenous issues. Accepting any of these truths questions our individual identity and legitimacy. We cannot handle the truths of Australia's historic and continued dispossession of Indigenous peoples and so we try to alleviate the situation by half-baked solutions such as land rights, constitutional recognition and reconciliation action plans. 

This is not to take anything away from these efforts – but our problem is that we are seeking short-term solutions without knowing the more fundamental question to be asked. 

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What is the right relationship for Australia to have with its Indigenous nations and peoples? This is the question we should be asking. 

Many other countries have asked this question. Canada did, in its Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, asking "what are the foundations of a fair and honourable relationship between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada?" The result is that Canada engages with Aboriginal peoples on a nation-to-nation basis (or is at least meant to). 

It is because of this lack of a relationship that non-Indigenous Australia has never taken to a treaty. This is because the relationship that would underpin a treaty has not yet been perceived to exist by non-Indigenous Australia – you cannot negotiate with someone you don't think worthy of being the other party to that negotiation.

So how does non-Indigenous Australia ask this question and establish this relationship? The first and most important step is to retract our desire for self-legitimisation and accept that as non-Indigenous Australians we have a confused identity. It is only from this more neutral position that we can learn a new perspective, that Indigenous people in Australia are distinct nations and people possessing the inherent right to determine their own affairs. 

It is from here that we can possibly develop a new relationship with Indigenous nations and peoples, one that results in a new political engagement such as a treaty. This is a process, and certainly not a clear-cut one.

So on January 26, if you're asked whether you think it should be called Australia Day or Invasion Day, don't back up into the hole of self-preservation and say "get over it, it's Aussie Day!" Similarly, don't align with lefty anti-establishment mantras and deny your Australianness. Accept your confused identity and commit to a critical assessment of the true relationship Australia should have with Indigenous nations and peoples. This, in turn, will redefine your own identity as an Australian, for the better.

James Dwyer is an Australian legal professional working in Aboriginal self-government in Canada.

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